It’s amazing to me just how many of my favorite meals are the consequence of haphazard circumstance. Such is the case with my recent trip to Desta, a popular Ethiopian restaurant located near the intersection of Briarcliff and Clairmont. While Desta has a much more vibrant following than a place like Celia’s [you’ve all been … right?], that fact alone did not make this trip any less of a surprise. Tasked with the role of choosing a restaurant for a follow up to the night’s earlier Linner, I managed to pull Desta out of thin air. Luckily, Ms. Vennerable [sic] is a fairly adventurous eater and an avid fan of all things Ethiopian.
There’s a reason why I haven’t talked a lot about the dozen or so Ethiopian eateries in and around the metro-Atlanta area. In my three or four experiences with the indigenous African fare, I have found the food to be passable at best (the word barftastic comes to mind). Mind you, not a single one of these meals has taken place in the last three-years and none of them at a location anywhere close to the state we all know as Georgia.
As with most every regional cuisine, there is a deep and rich history behind Ethiopian food. It’s one I am in no position to comment on. So not only have I had bad run-ins with it, but the situation is exacerbated by my ignorance. Still, I think this position actually works in our favor. While there is something to be said for my rantings that are backed by a more substantial knowledge base, there is something charming in my ignorance. If you’re still with me, it is a safe bet that when most people are asked to rattle off their favorite cuisines, Ethiopian is probably mentioned more in jest than as a serious response.
Off-color humor aside, I relished in the ability to walk into a place with little more than a cursory knowledge of the food and simply just taste. As luck would have it, the reputation behind Desta seems to be earned. Perhaps your experience will mimic mine.
Finding Desta can be somewhat of a chore; however, once you do find it – you may wonder what was so intimidating about the search. Located in the northeast quadrant of the Briarcliff and Clairmont intersection, the strip center is identified as Williamsburg Village Shopping Center. Driving around, don’t confuse Desta with Ledet or Meskerem, two additional Ethiopian options. Given the high concentration of Ethiopian businesses inside of a one-mile radius, I suspect there is a reason for Desta’s location of choice. But anywho, Desta sits in a free standing building and is easily identifiable for its takeout window (more on that in a bit) and the wood patio.
Inside, the dinning room is softly lit save for the bright lights of the dessert-rotational-device and the “don’t stare into the sun” glow emanating from the kitchen. During the day, I suspect the place is well lit because of the concentration of windows. The room is half-heartedly split in two with booths, tables, and a full bar off to the left and a series of tables in the “room” you walk into. On this random Tuesday evening, just over half the tables were filled… that’s a good sign.
Promptly seated by one of the kind waitresses, my eyes did their usual thing. Corners were inspected, the full bar was analyzed (more than sufficient), and other tables were peeked at. Turning to the menu itself, I immediately noticed the breakfast any time section. As much as I wanted to explore it, I didn’t really give it a glance. If the place held up – that would be for another time.
Taking somewhat of a lead on this one (and I don’t know why), I went through the menu and made a few suggestions from what little I knew. I had kifto before, so that would do for the appetizer (you know, the thing you eat before you eat … silly Americans). To further fuel the oddity of the experience, I didn’t do any real research on the place before showing up. However, I did recall that someone in my past made a special note of the tilapia tibs and the menu reinforced that with a bolded teaser included with the printed descriptors. So that was in order. The V suggested something veggie, so I suggested one of the shiro dishes as I have always thought of it as Ethiopian hummus. What we got was the bonzena shiro, something I was completely not expecting (but in a good way).
Two things became readily apparent. First, this isn’t the same type of Ethiopian restaurant that I was familiar with. That was obvious in the fact that things were served on single serving plates (as opposed to family style). Second, the food came out way too fast for a restaurant of this varietal. As I’ve learned through subsequent readings (especially the one on Disposable Income) the food is partially prepped in advance and the menu is indeed a twist on the traditional.
Getting into the details, first up was a plate of wrapped kifto and presented in bite-sized samplings ($5). Per the menu, it was indeed minced steak seasoned with chili powder and spiced butter. Texturally, this was my least favorite of the dishes. The meat was super soft (stewed perhaps) and it was so soft that it was hard to get away from the idea that I was eating a ball of mush. However, the kick of the chili powder, while not up to my ridiculous fire standards, was definitely profound but not so much so as to kill the richness of the butter. It was fresh, tasty, and sprinkled with Ayib (cottage cheese) upon request. Was it perfect for my love of crunch? No. Was it well executed and well worth the order … most def!
We were given just the right amount of time to finish the sampling when a rectangular plate of cubed Tilapia with veggies. The tilapia had been perfectly sautéed with Ethiopian spices (no idea what they are called), onions, peppers, and some of that butter. There was also a side house salad thrown in. For $11, this was a deal. In fact, if you and a guest aren’t starving, this would work for two people as is. Picked up with pieces of injera (again – more on that in a bit), initial bites were outstanding from start to finish. Later bites continued in this manner. My pleasure might have been as much about the value as anything else, but regardless, I wouldn’t have batted an eye if the price of this was $22 and not $11. The fish was crisped on the outside yet juicy on the interior. The vegetables were on the light side of al dente, giving you further crispness to balance against the super soft injera. There were hints of citrus and some spices that gave this dish a wonderfully robust flavor full of complexities but simple enough to satisfy even the most restrictive of palates. As a guy who almost never orders fish outside of the shelled type or in sushi form, I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this.
Last up was the bonzena shiro. What I expected was a plate of hummus like material. What we got was a full bowl of simmered olive oil, a strong sense of butter, undertones of meat, and a supper soft mixture of chickpeas. Accompanied by a spoon that you might recognize if you ever eat in a Japanese restaurant, I had no idea how to eat it. Was it a soup or not? Who knows and who cares … this was easy-going decadence that gave my mouth the joy of something really rich, and my stomach a big break from the expected torture that comes soon after. We used the spoon to ladle the concoction onto our injera. While it was soft, it didn’t bother me like the kifto as the absence of a meat protein made it more like a soupy spread.
Last up, we should make note of the injera … which is the Ethiopian answer to bread. I’ve read mixed reports of them using 100% teff flour and others saying that they do that some of the time. I have no idea which one we had, but if it’s a concern (aka – if you can’t handle glutten), then you should probably ask. Injera itself is a noticeably soft type of tortilla/pancake/crêpe. Good injera should be marked by small bubbles on the one side and a coral like texture to the other. You be the judge 🙂
Grey in hue, I found these particularly mild. In the past, I remember them reminding me of sourdough. Other articles lead me to believe that the sourdough flavor is typical. Whatever the case, these thick and resilient carbs are excellent for scooping and moving the food to your mouth. You can ask for a fork and knife … but I wouldn’t suggest it. After all, when in an Ethiopian restaurant nestled in the deep south, do as the Ethiopian nationals do. :-) As with a number of other cuisines, Ethiopian is made to be eaten with your mittens. While the culturally encouraged right-hand was available, I’m a lefty and I wasn’t scowled at … so do what works best for you (fork or otherwise).
Further readings have talked at length about the excellent vegetable dishes. When I saw a huge family-sized tray served to a nearby table of seven, I knew a return visit was in order. It’ll happen – I can assure you. There’s a lot more to say about the menu – but I think ya’ll get the idea by now.
A few other side notes worthy of mention. There is a drive-thru. Given the speed by which our order was delivered, you can certainly manage with a pull-up, order, and wait routine. However, I’m sure an advanced phone call would be a good idea. I have no clue how this would travel. Additionally, there are a number of Ethiopian spices available at the car-side window. I am not sure if they are available inside, but I don’t think so. Desta opens early (9a) and closes late (12a or 1a during weekends), so feel free to visit for whichever meal appeals to you.
In wrapping up, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it’s a first impression, so who knows what this means for the viability of the restaurant. For a well established business, I think the reasonably filled dining room is a good indicator that my experience is at least in the ballpark for a number of people. The rave reviews of others lend some credence to that as well. I have a lot more to say about this place. However, let’s leave that for another time as I plan on going back much sooner than later.
Atlanta Foodies on Desta
- FNS on Desta restaurant (07.17.09)
- AJC on Desta restaurant (03.03.09)
- Amy On Food on Desta restaurant (08.22.08)
- Omnivore on Desta restaurant (07.23.08)
- Disposable Income on Desta restaurant (07.08.08)
Desta Ethiopian Kitchen Restaurant Address & Information
*NOTE: THE MAP IS WRONG, Desta is in the Williamsburg Village Shopping Center, just to the east of the marker.